Ethan Fieldman says his company is, “The biggest education company no one ever heard of.”
It’s hard to know for sure but he may be right.
Study Edge, the company Fieldman founded, serves a million students a month and has contracts with some 700 universities.
It’s a tutoring company. But it’s not at all.
Fieldman doesn’t even like the word “tutor.” He says many people think having a tutor, “means you’re either rich or dumb.” He prefers “instructor” and “study expert” and is also quick to point out that Study Edge is not one of the companies that uses the word “tutor” but means “cheater,” a place to pay someone to give you the answers.
What he’s doing is different.
Though he’s a successful entrepreneur now, Fieldman began as a tutor – a prestigious National Merit Scholar at the University of Florida where he was trained and enlisted to help teach the world class athletes in their athletic program. The one on one attention, the high level of training, the unlimited hours and deep pockets for athlete education at Florida were the “Shangri la” of tutoring, Fieldman said. Teaching well-known athletes opened his eyes to what was possible and what other students were not necessarily getting. “I wanted to bring the quality of that athletic tutoring to every student at a very low cost,” he said.
Study Edge makes videos, instructional videos in math, science and business courses. But, again, probably not like you think.
For one, at Study Edge, students pick their instructors. The company has multiple tutors, different races, genders, ages, even languages. Numerous studies over decades have shown the value in having teachers that look or sound like a student, people students can relate to or understand. It’s no different for tutors, Fieldman says, which makes sense.
And that’s great. But two different things make Fieldman’s videos stand out. For one, they’re actually good.
“For educational video – anyone with a camera can make a video,” Fieldman said, “and 90% are total garbage. They’re watching videos that are dumpy.” By contrast, his videos are researched and practiced, field tested with real students at the University of Florida, before they’re released. “We keep our instructors on camera, we keep eye contact,” Fieldman says. “We keep it fun and engaging. It’s not just people talking over slides.”
There’s research to support that approach. A 2017 study of teaching by video showed that keeping an instructor on screen, not cutting away to white board as many other cookie-cutter explainer videos do, is key to student engagement and learning.
What really makes what Fieldman is doing quite unique, though, is who his company is doing it with – the schools and instructors themselves.
Study Edge does not just have videos on Physics, they have videos from multiple instructors on Dr. Brown’s Physics 101 at the University of Topeka, in a totally fictional example. The company works with the schools, the professors, the departments, using the actual class syllabi and approved study and sample questions. In other words, you’re not learning Business Marketing in general, you’re learning what your specific professor wants you to know about Business Marketing, approved by him or her, sanctioned by the school.
“Professors don’t want to lecture online. They want to teach in small groups, have offices hours, mentor,” Fieldman said. “So, they can offload the lecture part to us. It’s like having one teacher in the classroom and several teachers on your laptop or phone, whenever you need them.”
The videos are “perfectly aligned,” to the courses, Fieldman says. “Alignment at 95% is not good enough, if it’s 95%, if a student sees something they don’t know, they think they’re stupid, they get discouraged.”
The trifecta of instructor choice, quality video and specific course alignment is proving powerful, and good business.
“We were asked to bring what we were doing in higher education to local high schools, where students were struggling and failing Algebra I,” Fieldman said of the effort that, with the University of Florida Lastinger Center, become the middle and high school spinoff Math Nation. “It spread like wildfire. Before we knew it, we had 5,000 schools,” he said.
Study Edge earns funding from state governments for their K12 work as well as school districts and the colleges for which they align their video content. The company has a direct parent and student subscription model too – $14.95 monthly for unlimited access to their approximately 50,000 videos. They made all their services free for the fall semester for all college professors. Math Nation is free also for all students and all parents through at least December 31, but that may be extended.
The company, Fieldman says, “was profitable at the start” and now brings in eight figures a year. In 2012, Study Edge earned funding from the reputable y-combinator accelerator program, though Fieldman says they “never touched” the money.
Looking ahead, Fieldman says he will remain focused on scale and “keep the service running.” He says, “Middle and high school math and science is plenty, college is a lot.” Though he did bring up their investments in brain scanning and eye tracking technologies that could allow them to hone their videos, optimize them in real time, “shortening the feedback loop and keeping costs down.”
Like so much of what they’ve done, that sounds smart. That’s unusual for an education company, especially a big one. At least now you’ve heard of it.